Back in the summer of 2016, trade talks were stalled between the Houston Astros and the Los Angeles Dodgers. That’s when former Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow tossed out the name of a nineteen-year-old slugger who hadn’t even played his first minor league game.

“What about Álvarez, the Cuban?” he asked. The GM remembered that one of his scouts had pushed to sign Álvarez two months earlier, during Major League Baseball’s international signing period. Now, as he fielded offers for reliever Josh Fields from multiple suitors, so many names had been discussed that it was difficult to keep them all straight.

At first, the Dodgers emphatically refused: no way would they consider trading Yadier Álvarez. They thought Luhnow had inquired about a highly touted Cuban pitcher who had gotten a $16 million signing bonus a year earlier. “Yordan Álvarez,” Luhnow clarified, and the conversation that led to one of the most consequential trades in Astros history was underway.

Today, Yordan Álvarez is one of baseball’s best players and the single biggest reason Houston’s beloved and wildly successful baseball team is back in the American League Championship Series for a record sixth straight year. His moonshot home runs and gentle giant demeanor have made him the most popular player on a team filled with household names and All-Stars, from Justin Verlander to José Altuve to Alex Bregman. And the 25-year-old slugger had two of the best postseason performances ever to open Houston’s three-game sweep of the Seattle Mariners in the division series last week.

What he did to the Mariners in games one and two at Minute Maid Park was astonishing even by Álvarez’s standards. He finished game one by turning a 7–5 deficit, with the Astros down to their last out in the bottom of the ninth inning, into an 8–7 victory, thanks to a monstrous, dramatic shot that traveled 438 feet before landing in the right-field upper deck.

That three-run rocket left his bat at 116.7 mph—the hardest-hit home run of his career and Major League Baseball’s fourth-hardest hit walk-off homer since 2015 (regular season and postseason). He’s the first player in postseason history to hit a walk-off home run with his team trailing by multiple runs and down to its last out. At a time when Álvarez’s every at-bat has become must-see television, Astros fans replayed that one again and again.

“I think a lot of people, like, try and amp up to get power,” Bregman said. “But he knows that he just needs to stay within himself and stay within his swing. When he makes contact, it goes. And he can do it from line to line too. He can hit it to left field, he can hit it to right field. He hit three homers in one game to center field this year. So it has an effortless feel to the swing, but it’s powerful.”

Álvarez also drove in a pair of runs with a double and threw out a runner at home plate in game one. In game two, he again turned a deficit into a lead with another long ball. With the Astros trailing 2–1, Álvarez stepped to the plate with a runner on base. Seattle right-hander Luis Castillo threw him a 97-mph fastball that was barely outside the strike zone and belt high. Álvarez stroked the baseball smoothly into the air toward Minute Maid Park’s short left-field porch and watched as it carried halfway up the Crawford Boxes to give Houston a 3–2 lead.

The Mariners finally wised up in the bottom of the eighth inning, when Álvarez stepped back into the batter’s box with a runner on first. Seattle manager Scott Servais ordered him intentionally walked, even though it meant moving a runner into scoring position at second base. That strategy didn’t work either, as Bregman promptly lashed a single to right to drive in the final run of Houston’s 4–2 win.

Álvarez was the first player to be intentionally walked in a postseason game with a runner on first since San Francisco’s Barry Bonds in 2003. Before that, it had been Barry Bonds in 2002. Prior to Bonds, it was Willie Stargell for the Pirates in 1979 and Frank Robinson for the Orioles in 1970. That’s the kind of batter Álvarez has become—and the rare level of respect opposing teams show him.

“I think whenever I go up to the plate I try to visualize what the different kind of results that I could get up there when I’m hitting,” Álvarez said after the game through an interpreter. “If everything goes according to plan we’ll get a positive result. Obviously there’s still a pitcher out there who is trying to get me out.”

“I asked him today if he had a little bit sore back,” Astros catcher Martin Maldonado said the day after game one. “And he said, ‘Why?’ And I said, ‘Because you carry us as a team.’ But I would say probably 41,000 people, the fans, too. So he got a lot of weight on his back.”

Part of Álvarez’s appeal with both fans and teammates is a broad smile and an easy laugh, along with the six-foot-five, 225-pound slugger’s easygoing demeanor. This has been an especially joyful postseason for Álvarez because his parents, Mailyn Cadogan Reyes and Agustin Álvarez Salazar, completed a two-year navigation of the immigration system last week to see their son play for the first time.

The Astros finished the sweep in epic fashion on Saturday in Seattle with a 1-0 victory decided on a Jeremy Peña home run in the eighteenth inning, almost six and a half hours after Altuve stepped to the plate for the game’s first at-bat.

To think the Astros would win a postseason series when neither Justin Verlander (six runs allowed in four innings in game one) nor Altuve (zero for sixteen) played well speaks volumes about the depth of Houston’s baseball team and the experience it has gained in critical situations in recent years.

Houston’s biggest advantage in this postseason, perhaps even more than Álvarez, has been a pitching staff that was baseball’s best and deepest in 2022. That depth was on display against Seattle when the Astros bullpen allowed one earned run in 20 1/3 innings over all three games.

If Álvarez was the offensive star, Peña, the rookie shortstop who got a chance to play when star infielder Carlos Correa departed via free agency last summer, got second billing. Peña’s two-out singles in games one and two gave Álvarez the opportunity to hit those home runs, and he took care of things himself in game three by ending the longest scoreless game in MLB postseason history with a leadoff home run in the top of the eighteenth.

The Astros have played enough October baseball these past eight seasons to know that nothing is guaranteed. But after the underdog San Diego Padres eliminated the 111-win Dodgers on Saturday, Houston will have home field advantage through the rest of the Astros’ quest to win a second World Series in six seasons.

Much has changed since the Astros and Dodgers completed the trade that brought Álvarez to Houston in 2016. Luhnow, the primary architect in transforming the Astros from one of baseball’s worst franchises into one of its best, was fired in 2020 after it was revealed that the team had engaged in an electronic sign-stealing scheme. Luhnow has denied knowledge of the system.

The Dodgers have continued to win big even without Yordan Álvarez, but the trade turned out so lopsided that their top officials have done more than a little soul-searching. “Looking back on it now we obviously wish we would have said yes to the other names they asked for before him,” Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers president of baseball operations and a Houston native, told the Los Angeles Times in 2019. “We signed him the day before the period ended. And it was more because we were about to be cut out of big-ticket signings. Ironically, the big question in the industry at that time was about the power. Which, I’m not sure how that was the question.”

One thing is clear: neither the Astros nor the Dodgers expected Álvarez to be this good. Two months earlier, the Dodgers had given him a $2 million signing bonus toward the end of MLB’s international signing period. That level of investment means Álvarez that wasn’t an afterthought, but neither was he particularly high on anyone’s list.

Álvarez was like dozens and dozens of other teenage MLB prospects. That is, he had an intriguing skill set, but his development seemed uncertain, especially when compared with other young players with more polish to their games.

That changed in 2018 and 2019, when Álvarez’s power showed up. He hit 12 home runs in 43 games for double-A Corpus Christi in 2018 and 23 in 56 games for triple-A Round Rock the following season before being summoned to Minute Maid Park on June 9. He homered in his second major league at-bat, and some of his teammates called that the moment they understood how special he was. In that trip to the plate, the rookie slugger waited on a slow-moving changeup, then powered it out of the park.

“Whoa,” Gerrit Cole, an Astros starting pitcher at the time, remembered thinking, according to the Athletic.

“That’s really hard to do. I was surprised by that,” Altuve told the Athletic. “When you’re in your first day in the big leagues and they throw you a changeup, you’re normally out front. He waited for the ball and hit it the other way. That’s something that you don’t see very often in a guy like him.

“He’s unique,” Altuve said. “He’s so tall and strong. But at the same time, he’s a smart hitter. He gets hits. He gets walks. I love the way he plays.”

Álvarez was named American League Rookie of the Year after slugging 27 homers and batting .313 that season. His ability to produce power and a high contact rate has put him in the upper echelon of major league hitters.

The only thing that has slowed him has been a pair of knee surgeries that limited him to two games in 2020. He hit 33 home runs last season, and in 2022 he finished second in the American League in homers (37), on-base percentage (.406), and on-base-plus-slugging (1.019). He’s likely to finish third in American League’s Most Valuable Player voting behind the New York Yankees’ Aaron Judge and two-way superstar Shohei Ohtani of the Los Angeles Angels.

“You don’t go to the bathroom [when Álvarez is at bat],” Astros manager Dusty Baker said last week. “You wait. You hold it until after he hits. And like I said, that was the same way with Barry Bonds. Like, you don’t talk to anybody. You just pay attention. He likes to be in the big moment. His concentration and discipline is way ahead of his years. We just love having him.”